Beauty as Safety: Why #FeministsAreUgly is More Than Meets the Eye

Beauty is a litmus test for white supremacy: the closer your ability to pass as white, the better your chance of being deemed beautiful, and the further your chances from being killed.

by Lily Bolourian on May 18th, 2015

For decades, Western feminists have fought the notion that a woman’s value is based on her appearance. We’ve seen white women embrace natural body hair, reject make-up, wear whatever they please, and so on. The rejection of restrictive Western body standards sends a single message: a woman’s worth is not determined by her looks.

But that is all a lie. A person’s worth – and survival – is entirely dependent on their appearance.

Who gets to be beautiful? And who gets to be ugly? The answer isn’t simple. When we talk about beauty, we often lack the necessary nuance. We tend to deal in romantic myths of beauty, but reality is ugly: beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. Beauty does not come from within.

Only some of us get to be beautiful; being beautiful is a privilege. Indeed, whether or not you get are accepted into the beautiful club has an effect on your income, access to healthcare, and susceptibility to violence. It even has an effect on whether you live or die. “Beautiful,” an adjective, is defined as proximity to cis white womanhood. Beautiful means light skin, it means light eyes, it means pale skin, a thin body, and a feminine frame. Beauty is a litmus test for white supremacy: the closer your ability to pass as white, the better your chance of being deemed beautiful, and the further your chances from being killed.

Image of shattered glass.

Photo CC-BY Ryan McGilchrist, filtered.

And beauty, as a construct, has been defined by White feminists as a tool of the patriarchy. A trick, if you will, to get women to conform so that men find them desirable and worthy of love. In this view, to feed into beauty is to feed into patriarchy. But what does it mean to ignore “beauty”? What does it mean to rebel against it? What does that even look like? For women of color, it too often means putting oneself in harm’s way. This is not an ask I am willing to make of my sisters.

Even being “ugly” is a luxury. White women can reject restrictive body norms and pivot from the status quo. They can afford to be ugly because ugly is a label on their faces, not a target on their backs. It is because of this and many other factors that many women of color have said that there exists no universal experience of being a woman. The insidious nature of white supremacy still gives cisgender white women an enormous amount of power and privilege over other women. For white women, empowerment might mean rejecting certain body standards, but that is a privilege that women of color, particularly transgender women of color, cannot afford. In rejecting body standards, white women may only be taunted for appearing outside of established norms, rather than risking their livelihood and even survival.

Laverne Cox doesn’t have the luxury of being ugly. Laverne Cox is a black trans woman whose literal survival is dependent upon how beautiful we view her. It was just in April that a prominent Canadian white feminist declared that by obtaining plastic surgery and dying her hair, Cox had committed feminist sin and was “objectifying” herself. Putting aside how egotistical it is to position oneself the gatekeeper of objectification and women’s empowerment, attacking Laverne Cox for owning her body and expressing love of it is depriving her of her self-defense. Where beauty is safety, lipstick is mace.

It is with all of this in mind, plus the fact that I liked the way I looked one day, that @cheuya and I started #FeministsAreUgly. In July of 2014, I felt beautiful and decided to showcase it. It’s a feeling that I do not often feel, but it gives me a sense of utmost power and safety in the rare times that I do. Because one of the most tired insults from misogynists is that “feminists are ugly,” I thought using their own words and flipping the narrative would be a fun way to delve into these issues.

Within hours, #FeministsAreUgly began to trend worldwide.

At first, the main participants were queer women and women of color, and it was a space of radical self-love. But as the tag gained even more steam and media attention, I, too, was accused of self-objectification. Of course, when two unaffiliated women of color who lack a powerful platform venture into hashtag activism, its viral nature often leads to misinterpretation and derailment. That certainly happened; however, there were all too many people who felt completely betrayed and angered at the idea of women of color celebrating their bodies, bodies that society hates and commits violence against hourly.

Three tweets from user @cheuya: "Um. Y'all who believe the ONLY reason women ever post selfies is for male attention...internalized misogyny much? Wow. #FeministsAreUgly"; "Many women actively demonstrate self-love, & literally ALL that materializes in your sad little head is ab what men think? #FeministsAreUgly"; "Think for a moment ab how FUCKED UP you have to be to auto-attribute women's self-love to what MEN believe & want. THINK. #FeministsAreUgly"

(Tweet thread)

As a cisgender woman of color, my experience cannot be compared to that of Cox’s but, unsurprisingly, my critics were too often the same white feminists that went after her. I was told that I was encouraging conventionally attractive women to post selfies dispelling the myth of the ugly feminist, feeding the male gaze. I was told that I had set feminism back, that this trend was so embarrassing it made a Frisky writer’s skin itch. I was accused of horrible things, called a whole host of names that white feminists lambast men for saying.

I was in awe (though admittedly unsurprised) at the anger white women expressed when they saw that women of color found a space to feel beautiful in. But when one considers that in a white capitalist heteropatriarchy, women are viewed as property, it becomes less surprising.  Property value increases or decreases based on many factors – aesthetics being one. Beauty is currency and because capitalism revolves around the scramble to grasp to more and more capital, white women feel threatened by platforms like Twitter that give an opportunity for the most marginalized to receive currency that once belonged solely to them. One of those forms of capital is beauty, and its converse.

Tweet from user @LilyBolourian: "I'm not surprised mainstream white feminists don't know what's up with #FeministsAreUgly. Your eyes miss our tweets bc we don't exist to you"

(Tweet source)

When women of color find themselves beautiful, it is interpreted as an assault on white women. After all, the marginalization of women of color has never come solely at the hands of white men – white women have been more than complicit. White feminists are not immune from this. In fact, often times, white feminists are the greatest perpetrators of marginalization of women of color.

Tweet from user @LilyBolourian: "The people who attacked us most and where it hurt? White lady feminists. Telling us that it doesn't matter how we look. #feministsareugly"

(Tweet source)

When the tag originally trend in August of 2014, publications like BuzzFeed caught wind and, despite originally misunderstanding the tag, eventually came out to praise our work, which seemed promising. I thought that if BuzzFeed had gotten it right, other publications would follow suit. This was not the case. In fact, when the tag began to trend worldwide again in April of 2015, Twitter’s Trends algorithm — which now uses news headlines as descriptors for trending topics — opened the door for a lot of hate, abuse, and misunderstanding. Twitter used the headline of an Inquisitr piece called “Ugly Feminists Freak Out Over #FeministsAreUgly Hashtag” as the descriptor of the hashtag — an entirely misleading summary. This means that Googling my name or the tag will lead you to pages of misplaced rage towards me. This means that I am simultaneously deemed a hero and a villain to feminists and to misogynists. Despite attempts to contact Twitter support by multiple people, myself included, the descriptor remained until Twitter decided to just remove the entire hashtag from the trending topics list, an odd and completely unethical move.

What I had hoped to do with #FeministsAreUgly was to start a conversation and provide space for women to love themselves unapologetically. Too many of our discussions around beauty politics and beauty myths consist of cis white women opining on how sick they are of men reducing them to their outer appearances. But beauty is a far more complex structure that requires deeper analysis. The impact of being deemed beautiful to society means hurt feelings to some people and broken bones to others. Social media has provided a space where women of color, gender non-conforming people, trans women, women of varying abilities and sexualities, queer women, and more can feel relative safety in owning their appearance in a world that wants us dead.

If that is not revolution, I do not know what is.